Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 766
The title of “Funeral Blues,” by the English poet W. H. Auden (1907-1973), might at first suggest genuine lamentation—the kind of mourning or sorrow often found in popular music associated with African Americans. But the tone of Auden’s poem quickly becomes obviously comic and playful. The references to mourning here are mostly exaggerated, in ways that make them difficult to take seriously. The speaker seems, at least until the third stanza, to be having fun rather than expressing genuine pain. Only in line 12 does it seem possible to take the phrasing completely at face value. Otherwise the poem seems mostly an exercise in wit and cleverness.
The poem opens vigorously, with the strongly accented verb “Stop,” a beginning that simultaneously suggests an ending. Indeed, much of the rest of the poem is also built on heavily emphasized verbs of command. The tone of the work is highly imperative. The speaker issues orders, but the orders he issues suggest that he is not taking either himself or the supposed death too seriously. The poem immediately creates curiosity: who has died? How did he die? Why does his death seem so significant? These questions are never answered, which is part of what makes the poem seem so intriguing and playful.
By opening with the phrase “Stop all the clocks,” the speaker cleverly alludes to the idea that in death, time ceases (at least for the dead person). Part of the paradox of this opening, however, is that the tone and pace of the poem seem so rushed, as if time is running out for the speaker as it has already run out for the corpse. The speaker frequently uses what would be called, according to standard grammar, “comma splices,” as in the very opening line. By creating such “splices,” he gives the poem an effect of breathless hurry, as if many words and ideas must be crammed into a limited amount of time and space. Most of the first stanza, however, deals explicitly not with time that is rushed or has stopped but instead with the need to quiet or muffle noise. Here, too, the effect is somewhat paradoxical: the speaker wishes to quiet all kinds of noise except the noise he himself is making by uttering his excited, exciting words.
Stanza 2 suggests that the dead man may be an important public official, and indeed when the poem was first printed it was published as part of a play in which that kind of political context was made satirically clear. Even without such knowledge, however, the second stanza sounds ironic and overblown, especially in line 7. Any seriousness in the poem’s tone had already been compromised by line 2 (“Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone”), but line 7 makes the comic tone even more obvious: “Put crêpe bows round the white necks of the public doves.” The tone of the third stanza is once more humorously exaggerated, making the speaker sound romantic and naïve. Finally, in stanza 4 the commands are so “over the top”—so utterly impossible to implement and so difficult to take seriously—that a poem whose title might have seemed to promise gloom excites laughter instead, or at least a broad smile. The final line is so utterly, humorously exaggerated and emphatic that it creates strong amusement rather than any real mourning. Here as so often in his poetry, Auden displays his talent as a writer of “light” verse as well as his skill in writing in a plainer, more accessible, more “popular” style than was typical of the many other poets of his time (such as T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Hart Crane, or Wallace Stevens, to mention just a few).
The skill of this poem manifests itself in various ways. Thus, the speaker uses clever sound effects in the words “drum” (3) and “moaning” (5), which almost sound like the things they describe. In addition, the pace of the poem seems hurried not only because of the use of the “comma splices” already mentioned (another of which appears in line 12) but also because of the use of rapid lists, as in lines 9-11:
He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song . . . .
Trying to sound comprehensive and exhaustive, the speaker here instead sounds almost irrational, and this impression of irrationality is strongly reinforced in the final stanza. The final line, in particular, sounds comically extreme, so that a poem whose title had momentarily suggested the possibility of something serious ends by provoking a grin.
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